BLAME!

blame

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2017

Like the TV series KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA, this film is also an adaptation of a Nihei Tsutomu manga by animation studio POLYGON PICTURES. As such, the 2 projects have a similar gritty, dark, monochromatic aesthetic. Certainly, there are still limitations on how good CGI animation can look, but POLYGON is demonstrating here that they currently do the best work in this field. The background images and the action sequences, in particular, are stunning.

BLAME! takes place in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting in which the centralized technology operates blindly on its own, no longer recognizing the commands of humans. Instead, humans are seen as a threat to the system and are brutally purged by the Safeguard whenever they are detected. One small village of people known as Electro-Fishers has barely gotten by for decades, trapped in a protected space. But now they face extinction from starvation.

I would have expected one of the draws of the film to be Sakurai Takahiro as the lead character. Unfortunately, you might be disappointed if you are here for Sakurai, since the mysterious hero Killy hardly ever speaks! It’s a good thing (for me) Miyano Mamoru is also in this thing, in a supporting role, and his character actually gets to talk.

I was a bit disturbed by the rough way in which Killy handled the remains of Cibo. Yes, it was clear that she was basically a machine; but regardless, she looked human! I was also suitably terrified whenever the Safeguard activated to exterminate the villagers.

Some things do not get fully explained during the film, such as how Killy and Cibo came to be. Everything is also not resolved for everyone, so the door is open for a potential continuation of the story down the line.

WONDER WOMAN

WONDER WOMAN

3.25 stars (out of 4)

Released 2017

A few weeks ago, we finally got out to the theatre to see WONDER WOMAN. I enjoyed it a lot. Rather than your typical modern-day superhero movie, this was set amidst the fighting and espionage of World War I. Obviously, there were some fantastical elements, but most of the developments were pretty grounded. Even Diana’s abilities were mainly the result of years of rigorous training.

For only the story itself, I was going to rate the film at 3 stars. The extra 0.25 is for Gal Gadot’s riveting portrayal of the lead character. I liked how Diana was somewhat naïve and idealistic, and yet strong and fearsome too. Depending on the situation, her demeanor could range from appearing fierce and determined to gentle and even sweet. She was just really great in this role.

MUMON – THE LAND OF STEALTH (Shinobi no Kuni)

MUMON

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2017

This year’s Toronto Japanese Film Festival came to a close last Wednesday night with the North American premiere of Shinobi no Kuni, a rousingly enjoyable action movie set during the Sengoku period. Director Nakamura Yoshihiro was on hand to introduce the film and answer questions afterward.

Iga Province used to be renowned for its fearsome, highly-skilled ninja for hire. The Iga would kill without question if the price was right. Apparently, they would even sell out their own flesh and blood. As Oda Nobunaga’s forces approached their territory, in his mission to unify Japan, the Iga ninja were tasked with fighting for themselves for once, a monetarily profitless venture. How would they be able to muster up the motivation?

The acting was really good all around. The cast handled the serious dramatic scenes and the absurd comedic parts with equal flair.

The soundtrack was great too. I liked the inclusion of 70s-style rock music, which was unexpected, but really worked with the mood of the film.

Recently, I was turned off by the ugly violence in another TJFF film, Himeanole. MUMON – THE LAND OF STEALTH got it right, in my opinion. Cool-looking, largely bloodless, respectful sword fights and combat scenes are absolutely the way to go.

The movie did actually address some thoughtful themes regarding morality and honour, but it was balanced out by plenty of humour. All in all, it was a whole lot of fun to watch.

THE EMPIRE OF CORPSES (Shisha no Teikoku)

Empire of corpses

2 stars (out of 4)

Released 2015

This animated adaptation of late author Project Itoh’s zombie novel takes place in a steampunk 19th century Europe in which “corpse reanimation technology” has been accepted by society as a way to provide laborers to serve the living. However, these undead never retain their souls.

Medical student John Watson secretly reanimates the body of his friend and research partner, but becomes obsessed with finding a method to return his soul as well. He gets the opportunity to search worldwide for the records of Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s work when he teams up with the British government, who also want the notes for different reasons.

First of all, the movie looked great; the art and animation were absolutely top-notch. That would be the one good reason to watch it.

The plot itself was all serious and philosophical, but it honestly didn’t make much sense to me. While it was simple to follow what was happening from scene to scene, understanding why was something else entirely. It’s kind of a failure if the audience can’t reasonably tell why the protagonists made the choices that they did, or how the villain was doing whatever he was doing (re-creating GUILTY CROWN’s Lost Christmas?…), or even what governed the behaviour of the zombies.

The name-drops of famous literary figures didn’t seem to add anything to the story either. And it was not that clear whether the ending had anything to do with Watson’s initial goal.

I confess I’ve never understood the romanticism of zombies; this film didn’t help to enlighten me.

Anyway, after watching The Empire of Corpses, my sister and I also went and re-watched the fourth episode of Space Dandy. It covered similar musings of achieving world (or universal) peace through mass zombification – except that it was conveyed much more succinctly and enjoyably.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

pirates-caribbean-dead-men-tell-no-tales

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2017

We are now at the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, 14 years after the release of The Curse of the Black Pearl. The series has been running for long enough that we are into next generation territory already. This film pairs Captain Jack Sparrow with Henry Turner, the grown up son of Elizabeth and Will, in a quest for the Trident of Poseidon.

Pirates of the Caribbean has always been famous for having stunning special effects, and Dead Men did not disappoint. In particular, I really liked how Captain Salazar’s hair moved as if it were permanently suspended in water – that was so cool. And, they managed to make a guillotine look like an amusement park ride – probably the most hilarious treatment of an execution device that I’ve ever seen!

It’s too bad certain action sequences were too dark to see clearly, though. Also, some of the plot developments seemed a little too convenient, but I guess it was acceptable to get things progressing more quickly.

I think I was never completely satisfied with the bittersweet way in which the original trilogy ended back in 2007. Therefore, it was good to see the issue revisited finally in this latest installment.

Mid-Spring 2017 Anime Ranking

It’s sequels galore this spring, including some very highly anticipated and long-awaited ones. The Eccentric Family and My Hero Academia make their return; and need I mention the blockbuster Attack on Titan? Fully half of the shows we’re following this season are sequels and spin-offs, with many of them taking up residence in my top 10! One of those is the surprising title currently at the number one spot.

rage-of-bahamut-virgin-soul charioce
01. Rage of Bahamut: VIRGIN SOUL (Shingeki no Bahamut: VIRGIN SOUL) (ep. 1-10) – Well, well. I knew this sequel was coming, but it was not even on my plan-to-watch list at the start of the season, since I was not exactly a fan of the first series, Rage of Bahamut: GENESIS. Back in the fall of 2014, I partially described GENESIS as “overwhelming and boring at the same time” and I griped that the males were “needlessly unattractive.”

My how things have changed in this new series, which takes place 10 years later! The guys are smokin’ hot now, and it’s actually relevant to the story! Interestingly, it’s not that Azazel and Kaisar, for example, superficially look that much different from before; I think it’s more a matter of dignity.

The new heroine, Nina, is also great. She’s physically strong, but she has to hide her weakness (to hot guys), since she doesn’t want to turn into a dragon and destroy everything. It’s relatable incredibly, and really funny.

So far, the setting has been almost entirely in the human world, which is another thing that I wanted. The reason for it is rather dark, though, and sets up the central conflict at the heart of the narrative.

Episode 6 was a blast! Gorgeously animated, it kind of reminded me of Aladdin, only the incognito royal love interest wasn’t a beautiful wide-eyed princess, but rather a handsome genocidal king! Okay, it’s kind of twisted and you just know it won’t end well, but that’s part of what makes it thrilling. It also added a shocking softness to Charioce’s persona, who had already been pretty well-fleshed out as a formidable enemy.

The animation is such that you can frequently tell what the characters are thinking just from small changes to their eyes and facial expressions.

Additionally, the story provides enough hints to make it fairly easy to figure some things out on your own (such as the identities of the Rag Demon and the drifter), which adds to the anticipation of what’s to come. I also like how events relating to one subplot will have repercussions on a different subplot later on; it really shows how much thought the writers have put into crafting a consistent and cohesive story.

Oh, and once again, there is an awesome OP with music by SiM. Basically, I have no shortage of good things to say about VIRGIN SOUL thus far. I only wish there were a legal way to stream it where I live.

starmyu s2-05 kuga
02. STARMYU High School Star Musical Season 2 (ep. 1-10) – Yes, STARMYU – there’s no mistake! Plot-wise, there isn’t that much. The students are just competing for roles in a high profile school play. But what I want from a sequel like this is ridiculous musical numbers and personality-infused character interactions; and above all, I want to have fun. In that regard, STARMYU 2 delivers in spades.

I love Hoshitani’s banter with lovably self-important Tengenji. The guy is fiercely loyal to his teammates even while insulting them to their faces! And Kuga’s sudden, unwanted harem is pretty funny too. Next time he’ll probably think twice before unleashing that level of coolness in public!

Poor Ageha chose the wrong guy to look up to. I’m sure Haruto is immensely talented as a performer, but as a mentor and instructor, his skills seem to be somewhat lacking.

Ootori and Hiiragi are much more deserving of respect and admiration, in my opinion. They are genuinely encouraging and helpful toward their juniors. Speaking of those two, one of the highlights from the first season was learning the basis for the strained relationship between them. I find it really heartwarming to see them hanging out together and being comfortable in each other’s presence since the start of this season.

What could be better? Sometimes Haruto and his team go a teensy bit overboard with their BL-suggestive wording when they talk amongst themselves. It gets to the point where I barely know what they’re actually talking about sometimes.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

Attack on Titan 31 Reiner-Eren
03. Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) Season 2 (ep. 26-35) – So far, this season has nailed the feeling of terror and creepy foreboding. The animation has improved too. Development-wise, the pace is slow though, and the story does not seem to be in a hurry to provide answers to the many ongoing mysteries. That’s not to say there are no revelations, of course. Personally, I loved the super-casual way in which the major plot bomb was dropped in ep. 31. That was so creative and so funny.

I have enjoyed the greater focus on the supporting cast, but ultimately I’m of the camp that wants to see more of Eren, Mikasa, and Armin.

No matter how grim the situation may be most of the time, Attack on Titan always finds room for at least a little bit of humour in every episode. That’s one of the things I really like about this show.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

Uchouten Kazoku 2 09
04. The Eccentric Family 2 (Uchouten Kazoku 2) (ep. 1-9) – Yasaburou and his tanuki family are back for another season, and it’s as charming and quirky and cute as ever.

Although I don’t feel confident that I can explain most of what happens in this unusual series, I strangely don’t feel lost either. The characters are so distinct and the narrative is so compelling, that just being along for the ride is fanciful and fun.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

Kenka Banchou Otome 5
05. Kenka Banchou Otome -GIRL BEATS BOYS- (ep. 1-9) – Hinako is coerced into taking her brother Hikaru’s place at a boys school full of delinquents, where there’s more fighting than studying. Fortunately, she can totally hold her own and quickly rises up the ranks of the social ladder. All the characters are colourful and likeable. The delinquent school premise hasn’t gotten old either; it was funny in BEELZEBUB and Cromartie High School, and it’s funny here.

I always look forward to the OP, since it usually incorporates part of the episode’s action. I even like the mock documentary sessions where the cast members soberly reflect on the current events as if from the future. It’s so absurd.

Each episode is only 8 minutes long so it’s often over way too soon. Kenka Banchou Otome is ridiculous and over-dramatic, and it’s a lot of fun!
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

06. KADO: The Right Answer (Seikaisuru Kado) (ep. 0-9) – In this mostly 3D-animated sci-fi drama, an alien being from the anisotropic drops his huge impenetrable cube (Kado) down at Haneda Airport, then proceeds to gift humanity with extra-dimensional devices.

The early reactions of the humans tasked with investigating Kado were presented in great, realistic detail. Then the pace kind of slowed down in the middle. It seemed to me the production was putzing around during the relocation of Kado, the repeated explanations of Sansa, and of course the recap episode (which I didn’t watch).

We’re building up momentum again, and it looks like things are going to get weirder from here. From a storytelling standpoint, I think that’s probably a good thing. If they try to keep it too realistic, I just don’t see how it would work.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

Royal Tutor Heine
07. The Royal Tutor (Oushitsu Kyoushi Heine) (ep. 1-10) – Heine, a diminutive man with a mysterious past, becomes the latest in a long line of tutors for Grannzreich Kingdom’s four difficult young princes. Predictably, the early parts involve him getting to know his students and earning their respect.

Now, it seems there’s a conspiracy afoot and it might not be easy for Heine to keep his past hidden for too much longer.

One of the best segments so far was ep. 6, in which His Royal Highness himself decided to take a hands-on approach in evaluating Prince Licht’s extracurricular activities.

Incidentally, King Viktor seems to have a perpetually youthful appearance and is at least as handsome as any of his sons. If you’ve ever lamented that there just weren’t enough hot kings in your anime, well then between The Royal Tutor and Rage of Bahamut, this spring season has got you covered!
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

08. My Hero Academia (Boku no Hero Academia) Season 2 (ep. 14-23) – When I first realized that this second season would be all tournament-based, I was honestly not very enthusiastic at the prospect. Now that we’re well into it however, I have to admit the show is really good and seems to be getting better by the week. The match-ups are exciting and the soundtrack has been phenomenal too.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

09. Yowamushi Pedal NEW GENERATION (ep. 13-21) – It’s time for the Inter-High again. Currently, Teshima seems to be paying the price for not warning Onoda sooner that the number one tag on his back would make him a target for the other riders.

I thought Midosuji was creepy, but his teammate Komori is even more gross. I literally felt violated when he groped Onoda and Imaizumi previously. Kyoto Fushimi High has been notably absent from the screen since the race began. I shudder to think what they might be up to.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

Kabukibu-09
10. KABUKIBU! (ep. 1-9) – A kabuki-loving teenager starts an amateur performance club at his school. Following some issues with recruitment, the group begins to perform. But that comes with a whole new set of challenges.

I have to say, I really don’t get kabuki. I appreciate that the show makes the effort to educate its viewers on the art form, but so far, it has just reinforced my opinion that kabuki is weird and hard to understand. The characters themselves are likeable enough, though, which makes KABUKIBU! easy to watch.

11. BORUTO: NARUTO NEXT GENERATIONS (ep. 1-10) – I was really enjoying this Naruto spinoff at the outset. Boruto is smart and full of personality, and he’s a much more charismatic protagonist than his old man was.

I’ve lost some of that enthusiasm now that the show seems to be stuck in a disgruntled-person-of-the-week-gets-possessed cycle that has already been pre-emptively parodied in 2 seasons of Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE!. It would be okay if each episode revealed more of the mystery behind the shadow or why Boruto is the only one who can see it, but there’s typically very little progress.

I also have an issue with the way that overweight characters are portrayed as always eating junk food. I’m trying not to let that get in the way of enjoying an otherwise decent production, but there it is.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

Tsuki-ga-Kirei-01
12. Tsukigakirei (as the moon, so beautiful.) (ep. 1-9) – This is a pretty understated, realistic take on first love that foregoes most of the usual tropes of the genre. Kotarou and Akane are sweet kids each with their own interests and goals. As they tentatively develop their newfound relationship with each other, they also encounter awkwardness in their dealings with family and friends.

If Tsukigakirei is relatively low on my ranking, it’s only because romance is not my preferred genre. If you like gentle love stories without a lot of manufactured drama, then you won’t go wrong with this series.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

13. Re:CREATORS (ep. 1-9) – The first 4 or so episodes were way too heavy on talky exposition by Meteora. But then, the mecha pilot and his creator showed up, and they were fun and interesting. I also liked that when the government stepped in, they were highly efficient and already knowledgeable about the situation. I’m happy to see Kirihara Kikuchihara, in charge of the investigation.

Ultimately, though, I think there are just too many characters; and while the whole concept of fictional creations being transported to the real world is a fascinating idea, the execution seems a little clumsy and unfocused.

14. Ninja Girl & Samurai Master S2 (Nobunaga no Shinobi: Ise Kanegasaki-hen) (ep. 27-35) – This short series chronicling the history of Oda Nobunaga and his trusty little ninja continues without much of a break, but it’s officially season 2 now.

In ep. 30, I commiserated with Mitsuhide, as I was going through a similar work experience of having to deal with someone unpleasant for longer than I could tolerate. I also laughed out loud when the ugly Daimyo of Mino from the first season showed up again suddenly looking hot; it reminded me of a certain other show I happen to be watching that I can’t seem to stop talking about…
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

Fukumenkei-Noise-01
15. THE ANONYMOUS NOISE (Fukumenkei Noise) (ep. 1-9) – Singer girl Nino/Alice crosses paths again with the boy she traumatically parted ways with in childhood when she enters high school. Subsequently, she also reunites with the other boy she even more traumatically parted ways with even earlier in childhood. Yes. There is a rock band and then there is another rock band.

The show is really emo about the stupidest things. If from now on I always cringe at the sound of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or giggle at the sight of a pedestrian crossing button, it’ll be because of this overly-sincere, angsty anime.

16. WorldEnd: What do you do at the end of the world? Are you busy? Will you save us? (Shuumatsu Nani Shitemasu ka? Isogashii desu ka? Sukutte Moratte Ii desu ka?) (SukaSuka) (ep. 1-9) – My sister and I are both watching SukaSuka, though neither of us is really that into it. Personally, I dislike that all the characters are walking around with dead-looking eyes. There’s a reason for it, as none of them are normal humans at this point, but nevertheless it does get in the way of my connecting with any of them emotionally.

Strangely, maybe because we are not engrossed in the story itself, we find ourselves noticing technical things about the production – my sister especially. She can understand a lot of the Japanese in this show, and every once in a while she will interject that Crunchyroll’s translator made a good choice in wording and such. In particular, we had a good laugh at the use of “defenestrated” in ep. 8. It is a wonderfully descriptive term all on its own, but because it is often applied in a military context, it also happened to be very appropriate to the character who spoke the line.

She has also pointed out, with dismay, that one of the music pieces in the soundtrack seems to be recycled note-for-note from the Free! anime, which had the same composer.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

17. Love Rice (Love Kome –We Love Rice-) (ep. 1-10) – At first I didn’t really get the rice jokes. Well actually I still don’t get them; and the puns go right over my head most of the time. However, I began to see the humour in the absurd way that Love Rice sends up the usual tropes of the idol anime genre.

At the end of every 4-minute episode, there’s a quickie live-action cooking segment showcasing the preparation of various rice dishes.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

Black Butler (Kuroshitsuji): Book of the Atlantic

Black Butler Book of the Atlantic

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2017

Ciel and Sebastian board a luxury liner in order to investigate a suspicious medical society rumoured to possess a treatment that prolongs life. It’s a mixture of business and pleasure for our duo, as they have friends who are also on the ship for vacation.

Anyway, disaster ensues. Double disaster, actually – think Titanic, with zombies.

I had read criticisms beforehand that the animation was not of the highest quality, and I’d have to agree. The CG rendering of the ship and its passengers looked really stiff. The action scenes seemed all right, but characters were roughly drawn when not shown in close-up. (Close-up art looked great.)

I didn’t find Snake that amusing here (I can’t remember: did I ever?), but otherwise, the absurd humour worked most of the time. Several of the gags were laugh-out-loud funny even.

Often, movie installments of popular franchises will tell a standalone story, and the villains are introduced and taken care of during the film’s runtime. In Book of the Atlantic, it’s more complicated than that. There are revelations about established characters that will affect the rest of the series, including one person who turns out to be deeply mixed up in the raising-of-the-dead scheme. Of course, that also means that some loose threads are left hanging at the end.

Today’s special screening was in Japanese with English subtitles. The film will screen one more time on Wednesday in English.

Chihayafuru Part I

Chihayafuru part 1

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2016

I really love the Chihayafuru anime, so I went into this live action film with high expectations, but also some mild trepidation as to how successfully the content would transfer to a 2 hour movie format.

The screenplay writer made what must certainly have been difficult decisions, but the cuts and story rearrangements resulted in a streamlined production that hit all the right notes. In the places when it really mattered, no corners were cut. In particular, Taichi’s and Tsutomu’s conflicts had sufficient time to fully develop and the payoff was rewarding.

Some of the acting was a little unnatural, especially in the quieter moments, but the cast’s performance was effective in conveying humour and showing the characters’ personalities.

The good framing of the shots, use of slow motion, and the music further added to the excitement in this thrilling competitive karuta movie.

SCOOP! / Himeanole

Scoop Himeanole

Both released 2016

We caught 2 films at the TJFF on Friday night. Although they were quite different in subject matter, both of them freely depicted sex and onscreen smoking and both culminated in the crazy character going on a killing spree that took the life of a well-meaning police officer among other victims.

SCOOP!
2.5 stars (out of 4)

SCOOP! was about a veteran paparazzi photographer and the rookie reporter he was forced to work with. It did show what a distasteful business gossip rags are. The character interactions were mostly good, even if I was a bit icked out at the prospect of romance between the 2 leads.

The car chase was pretty exciting, especially when our protagonists decided it would be a good idea to light up fireworks inside their vehicle.

Himeanole
1.5 stars (out of 4)

Himeanole was like 2 movies. In the first half, 3 guys happened to be in love with/obsessed with the same girl, a waitress at a local café. It maybe had something to say about the psyche of loser guys and their attachment to unattainable idols.

The second half made a whiplash-inducing turn to the dark side. It was full of disturbing gore and violence and frankly didn’t seem to have much of a point. I can put up with some violence if it’s cartoonishly funny or cool, or if there’s some message like demonstrating the horror of war, for instance. Here, the violence just seemed to be hateful and gratuitous and completely out of line with my idea of entertainment.

The points I award this movie are pretty much for technical merit and acting only.

The Boy and the Beast

boy and the beast

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2015

A troubled runaway human boy becomes the apprentice for a warrior beast after stumbling into a hidden world through a secret passageway in Shibuya.

The charm of the film came from the characters’ development more than the overall story. The dialogue and interactions were strong and it was nice to see how Kumatetsu, Kyuta, and even minor characters changed over time through their shared experiences.

The actual plot was kind of a letdown, and amounted to not much more than one thing happening, which was then followed by another thing. The events just somehow seemed to lack a logical narrative direction and purpose.

The way Ren/Kyuta vascillated between the human world and beast world, all the while messing with the emotions of the people who cared about him, reminded me a lot of Ame from Wolf Children, another Hosoda Mamoru film. In both cases, what the child was actually looking for, what he wanted from his life, never were clearly explored or explained for the audience (or for his loved ones). But Ame was not the focal character in his film, so his enigma status was a little more acceptable.

I wasn’t really into the Moby Dick symbolism/analogy either. First of all, who learns to read using a Herman Melville novel? I mean I get that Ren’s smart, but that’s just patently ridiculous. And then the antagonist randomly decided to take the form of a whale merely because he happened to get a glimpse of the word “whale”? That was a pretty weak contrivance to justify the fantastical, though inconsequential, whale imagery and cool-looking animation which followed.

In the end, the moral of the story was: “Parents, don’t lie to your children,” I think.